In his nineteenth season as Music Director with the orchestra, Sir Mark Elder’s first Hallé concert of the season saw him pair two late romantic works of entirely opposite outlook. Strauss, and especially Elgar, are Hallé staples, and this concert on home turf was every bit as successful as expected.

Sir Mark Elder © Benjamin Ealovega
Sir Mark Elder
© Benjamin Ealovega

Having already recorded Elgar's Symphony no. 2 in E flat major and with no sign of BBC Radio 3 in the house, the array of microphones suggested that Strauss' Don Quixote will soon be appearing on a Hallé disc. There was a lot to commend this performance aurally, but, as Elder pointed out, the orchestra had also taken steps to make it slightly more audience-friendly than usual. Principal cello (Nicholas Trygstad) and viola (Timothy Pooley), representing the Don and Sancho Panza, were dressed in blue, as were the cor anglais, bass clarinet and tenor tuba (sitting together) and the leader, highlighting their key character roles. There was also a surtitle screen, which struck just the right balance in outlining the basics of Cervantes’ story without distracting from the music. In a departure from usual seating, the violins sat to the conductor’s left, with violas outside on his right, bringing Sancho right to the forefront.

Even without a helping hand from the surtitles, the music here was vivid enough to capture every image of Strauss’ hyper-detailed score. Both abstract and literal were boldly painted, from the attractive love theme on oboe and the Don’s descent into insanity, to the particularly vigorous sheep bleating from the woodwind section. Both cello and viola soloists played with enormously rich character, capturing Quixote’s bruised ego after falling from his horse and the folksy proverbs of Sancho Panza’s conversation. There was great beauty to admire in the cello playing, most of all in variation 5, and the orchestra had their own attractive moments in horn and violin playing in variation 3. Intonation slipped momentarily once or twice, but one couldn’t hope for a more graphic account of the score. The pacing of the performance had an air of mini-opera in it, the stories folding out of each other in pleasing proportion to one another. The latter variations slowly grew in intensity from a thrilling flight (though with wind machine curiously placed off stage) to the Don’s last duel. The final pages, describing his twilight years and death, burned out with moving dignity and a rich, Wagnerian glow.

Elgar and Wagner are probably the chief legacies of Elder’s tenure with the orchestra thus far. The second symphony, one of the most deeply introspective and personal in the repertoire, was played with touching affection and care for its themes. The emotional heart of the long work was in the second movement, the slow tread of which passed through the orchestra without any hint of hurry or melodrama, the music instead unfolding slowly and on a grand scale. Restless at first, and only resolving via a long struggle (and a wonderfully freely-paced oboe solo), this was Elgar at his most magical.

Elsewhere, in the first and third movements, the symphony bustled with life, brightly striding onwards in the first, each recap of the main theme marked with a huge crescendo, and scampering crisply through the third. The taut, muscular punch of the third was driven forwards with percussive energy from all sections, ending in a big flourish. By comparison, the finale began with an infinitely softer edge on the sound, resolute and stirring in the bigger tutti passages, but elsewhere vulnerable and, in the end, quietly contented.